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“Help me get back to my baby, or I’ll make your life a living hell.” That’s the voice of Erma Singleton, a dead woman whose body is found on a New Mexico highway. Rita Todacheene, a forensic photographer for the Albuquerque Crime Lab, is frequently haunted by the ghosts of the victims she photographs, but Erma is particularly persistent. Ramona Emerson’s intriguing debut thriller, Shutter, follows Rita through a series of crimes that eventually puts her in the crosshairs of a dirty cop who’s on the take from a powerful drug cartel. 

In alternating chapters, readers follow both Rita’s battle against corruption and her coming-of-age as a photographer and vessel for departed spirits. Rita has been haunted by spirits ever since she was a child growing up on the Diné reservation, and her devoted grandmother and a tribal elder have long tried to protect Rita from these voices. Rita’s relationship with her grandmother is particularly well done, as is the novel’s portrayal of Indigenous history and discrimination. As the book progresses, the action revs up in both Rita’s backstory and her crime-solving saga.

As a Diné writer and filmmaker from New Mexico, Emerson has created an intriguing crime drama in a setting she knows intimately, and her photographic knowledge shines. Each chapter is titled after a different type of camera used by Rita, ranging from a pinhole camera in her youth to her mother’s Hasselblad and a digital Nikon. Emerson got her start in forensic videography, so her detailed crime scene descriptions are not for the faint of heart: Erma met a particularly gruesome death, and so do others, including a murdered judge and his family. 

Shutter is a promising debut that satisfyingly explores forensic photography and Diné culture within the New Mexico landscape, surrounded by the voices of some very engaging ghosts.

Shutter is a promising debut that satisfyingly explores forensic photography and Diné culture within the New Mexico landscape, surrounded by the voices of some very engaging ghosts.
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Somewhere out in the fictional desert between “Breaking Bad” and No Country for Old Men, death is stalking its next victim in Gabino Iglesias’ spellbinding third novel, The Devil Takes You Home. The word spellbinding is used advisedly here, because the novel’s interweaving of fantastical elements with sudden and savage violence will leave unwary readers stunned.

It’s a story as old as Job: A good guy, beset by horrible circumstances, tries to preserve his faith and sanity in the face of unrelenting misery. In the biblical tale, Job holds fast to his soul; in this one, Mario goes down a darker road. Overwhelmed by medical expenses and offered a chance to make some quick money as a hit man, Mario hesitates only for a moment before packing heat and becoming an avenging angel.

It’s not uncommon for those who live in the shadow of criminality to dream of one big score that will put them on easy street, and Mario’s friend Brian offers him a piece of this dream: They will claim one cartel’s shipment of money for a different cartel and thus receive a handsome chunk of the reward. When Brian and Mario meet Don Vázquez, the baddest of the bad and the head of the Juárez Cartel, they try to exchange pleasantries: “Thank you, Brian,” Don Vázquez replies, “but I was just telling your friend Mario that meeting me is never a pleasure; meeting me is something that happens to people because they have made a bad decision.”

As with most noir narratives, this one is rife with bad decisions, many of them lethal. Iglesias does masterful work with Mario’s internal narration as he puzzles over which of his partners poses the greatest potential threat. Much of the novel switches back and forth between Spanish and English, and both languages are integral to the story, making them all the more worthwhile to comprehend.

The world of The Devil Takes You Home is harsh and unforgiving, its desert the most treacherous terrain. Iglesias does such a place justice in his brawny, serpentine and remarkably poignant novel.

The desert can be treacherous terrain, harsh and unforgiving. Gabino Iglesias does it justice in his brawny, serpentine and remarkably poignant crime novel.

Sleepwalk is a wild ride across an eerie near-future America in the company of a surprisingly endearing kidnapper, arsonist and hit man. As emotionally charged as it is comically bleak, Dan Chaon’s fast-paced novel is both a dystopian thriller chilled to perfection and an often-touching exploration of the enduring power of parental and filial love.

Chaon’s off-the-grid 50-something protagonist, Will Bear, thinks of himself as a “blank Scrabble piece” whose collection of aliases is rivaled only by his stash of burner phones. Fresh from a courier assignment, he answers one of those burners and is greeted by the voice of a young woman who calls herself Cammie and claims she’s Will’s daughter, the result of a sperm donation made three decades earlier. Things only get stranger from there, as Cammie reveals that Will’s contributions may have resulted in a small army of offspring.

Sleepwalk follows Will and Flip, the pit bull he rescued from a dog-fighting compound, in a race across a bleakly beautiful American landscape that’s scarred by civil unrest and plague cities, its endless highways now dotted with military checkpoints and “rabbit-beetle hybrid drones.” Though Will, who’s fond of microdosing LSD and ruminating about his epitaph, is increasingly intrigued by the prospect of being the patriarch of an expanding brood, the criminal syndicate that employs Will has reasons for dispatching him to eliminate Cammie—reasons that slowly become clear to him.

As Will shifts from being the target of Cammie’s outreach to becoming her ostensible pursuer in a shifting game of cat-and-mouse, he also has considerable time to reflect on his own troubled early years in the company of a mother who was “on the sociopathic spectrum, I guess,” and was “part of an anarchist collective that was more or less a cult,” a life that launched Will on his own shadowy career.

In Sleepwalk’s short, tightly written chapters, descriptions of apocalyptic cults, bizarre eugenics schemes and sheer mayhem vie with Will’s moments of profound regret and the faint hope that somehow his life could take a different path, as he longs to “wake up someday on a desert island with amnesia.”

The author of six previous books (both novels and story collections) that feature suspenseful plots and a distinctive literary flair, Chaon marries those qualities once again in memorable fashion while never losing sight of Sleepwalk’s emotional core: an interrogation of the power of ancestry and the way it helps shape our destinies.

Dan Chaon's Sleepwalk is both a dystopian thriller chilled to perfection and an often-touching exploration of the enduring power of parental and filial love.

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